Remember a year ago when the mega-deal between the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Fox broadcasting was announced?
Remember how they included the announcement of a world heavyweight title fight between then-champion Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, and how we all thought that we'd be seeing plenty of title fights on free network television for the foreseeable future?
It didn't exactly turn out that way.
January rolled around, and we were faced with the prospect of seeing three not-so-anticipated fights between guys who ranged from "hey, I know that guy" to "who is Chris Weidman, exactly?" And then May's card was headlined by a fight between Jim Miller and Nate Diaz, which sounds perfectly awesome as a UFC on Fox fight but perhaps not so much as a UFC on Fox main event.
Things began to change with the card headlined by Shogun Rua vs. Brandon Vera a few weeks ago. Sure, it still involved Vera, who didn't exactly light the world on fire since falling from his perch as one of the hottest prospects in the sport five years ago.
But the willingness to put Shogun—normally a staple of pay-per-view broadcasts—and Lyoto Machida on the card showed that Zuffa might be ready to start dosing these Fox broadcasts with a heap of star power or, at the very least, to give them a big-fight feel.
That was confirmed on Tuesday night when the promotion informed USA Today that December's Fox card will feature three big fights: BJ Penn vs. Rory MacDonald, Shogun Rua vs. Alexander Gustafsson and Benson Henderson defending his lightweight title against Nate Diaz.
Now, look: I realize that none of these three fights—even if bundled on the same broadcast—are going to garner a million pay-per-view buys. Benson Henderson isn't a major pay-per-view draw—at least not yet—and none of the other fights have the kind of intrigue that led to the interest that surrounded the rematches between Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir or Silva versus Sonnen.
But they're big fights all the same. The lightweight title will be defended on network television, for free, in what should be an incredible stylistic matchup. Shogun Rua tries to fend off the aging process and take out the most highly-touted young buck in the light heavyweight division not named Jon Jones. And BJ Penn returns from a short-lived (and little-believed) retirement to face the top prospect in the welterweight division.
What's not to love?
I don't know what changed in the relationship between the UFC and Fox. Things appeared to be getting a little chilly there for awhile, at least from an outsider's perspective. The ratings for The Ultimate Fighter Live were abysmal, and Fox probably didn't imagine when they signed up for this deal that they'd be getting Miller vs. Diaz as a featured main event taking up their precious network air time.
But December's upcoming Fox card should absolutely be taken as a sign that things are changing, and for the better. We don't know what the pay-per-view industry is going to look like in five or 10 years, but we know it's a changing business.
If the UFC's future truly resides on free, ad-supported network television—like every other major sporting league—they must begin to lay the groundwork now, to condition fans to expect great main events on television.
This is a good start.